The hive mind that we are has an enormous creative potential but works slowly, and for weeks we had been negotiating interview questions, artifacts, and the idea of a focus group where participants would be part of an event where they could write/draw/create a visualization of the ways they navigate and communicate across spaces in their daily lives as UWM students. Before class, Rachel had synthesized our ideas, so we were ready for a strategic revision of the following documents to get them ready for IRB submission:
We were eager and buzzing but also, I sensed, anxious about getting the details right for the IRB review. It is interesting going from conceptualizing the project and understanding the broader goals well to trying to whip all the smaller pieces into place. Words – who knew they were so capricious? As a writing teacher who routinely discusses with students the importance of word choice and phrasing, I found it instructive to observe how we struggled to wield the words to represent our collective ideas. This was challenging because, with some of the work we were discussing, we were still conceiving those ideas, so each of us was simultaneously molding and assessing ideas as we negotiated them in the group.
One item that caused the most debate was the focus group protocol, particularly the prompts for the artifact and the artifact itself. We wanted some type of map to illustrate the spaces students move across on a daily basis and how they navigate rhetorically across the different contexts. We started discussing the artifact but rather quickly determined that the specifics regarding the artifact (will it be paper or computer? Will we provide paper and markers? etc.) could be decided on later. The prompts, on the other hand, sparked a lively discussion: should we cast a wider net with open-ended prompts that would lead to more exploratory responses, possibly combined with a set of follow-up interview questions for all participants at the end of the event? Or should we have more streamlined questions on the prompt to aim at more consistency which, some of us thought, would be more practical for analysis of the data. With lots of IRB balls way up in the air, we had to make a choice between following our class agenda and covering the readings, which really help ground and conceptualize the project, or if we wanted to push through and finish the IRB documents. We voted; we were all hot to trot to continue, and we slowly reached consensus on the materials.
There was some storming which, we learned, metaphorically describes the stage in group development when group members push against each other’s ideas and sometimes against each other, but as Rachel told us, “we are all too nice”, so the storming became no tempest but rather a refreshing wind with ideas that were floated, some of which took off and some of which stalled.
At the end, I think we were all exhausted but satisfied with the work we had produced in accordance with our goals and our collaboration contract, and also relieved we had sorted through a lot of “mess” and our IRB documents were largely reading for submission to the IRB board. As CL described in “We’re Climbing – and Getting Stronger Along the Way”, we are still climbing and still have to overcome obstacles of an intellectual or practical nature, but it felt like we had reached a comfortable plateau to rest at over Spring Break while the IRB board reviews our materials. Fingers crossed out there!
With mid-semester quickly approaching I would like to reflect on how I, as a grad student (and I think I speak for many of us in this course), feel about how this study has gone thus far. I commented a few weeks back in my notes on how the direction of this project seemed very vague at first, which, as you very well might know, is a graduate student's worst nightmare. We like structure. We like to know exactly what is expected of us. We love tackling challenges that are in front of us and knowing that what we are doing is the right thing.
Unsurprisingly, during the first few weeks of this course, I was experiencing frustrations in having to deal with the “What direction are we heading in?” and “What am I supposed to be doing?” questions. We’ve done a substantial amount of work since, and upon doing some reflection, I realized (as I’m sure many of my fellow students have) that those frustrations were nothing more than what I’m calling “growing pains,” or perhaps better put, “climbing pains” and are a sign of progress. I can’t help but liken our journey through this course together to that of climbing a mountain. We have our goal to reach the top and are figuring out – through painful trial and error at times – which route works and makes the most sense to take. As we climb this mountain, our research legs are getting stronger. We’re making better choices by studying and applying methods that other climbers (researchers) have done before us. We are progressing.
Qualitative research is hard work. It requires the courage to know that you might be heading in the wrong direction, and the humility to look at that possibility as a learning opportunity. Our prof knows this, and instead of explicitly telling us how this type of research goes, she let us figure some of this out on our own. Though painful, she knows that we’ll come out the other end as better, more informed and more diligent researchers. As is with most good things in life, the journey to getting to where you need and want to be can be tough and painful but is always worth it once you reach the top.
We are a smart group – very conscious about the choices that we are making, always considering the ethics of our study and always bearing in mind how we can create a sustainable framework for the future of this project.
We’re still climbing.
Now that we have our research questions in hand, our class has come to the part of the study design process where we need to seek Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. Leah Stoiber, an administrator from UWM’s IRB, joined us for the first half of class last week to help us navigate the application process. While our small groups have already begun drafting materials for our IRB protocol form, Leah offered many helpful hints. She reminded us to keep our language simple and to submit all study materials for review.
As we’ve already discovered, human-subject research can be messy. While it’s the IRB’s ultimate goal to protect participants, we saw in this week’s reading and discussion that IRB approval is not always synonymous with ethical research practices. While IRB standards are an important place to begin, it is important to remember they are not the pinnacle of moral excellence (Edwell 166). To perform truly ethical research, researchers often need to exceed the expectations of the IRB.
Before our first official class meeting, we all completed mandatory IRB ethics and compliance training, so the Belmont Principles of respect for persons, beneficence, and justice are fresh in our minds. These principles are a great place to start when discussing ethical research practices.
Respect for Persons: One of the most important ways to show respect for persons is to show respect for personal decisions. This is why informed consent is imperative to any ethical study. As Leah pointed out, consent is more than just a form participants sign at the beginning; consent is a process that takes place throughout the entire study. As researchers, we need to be constantly re-evaluating our participants’ consent through rhetorical listening. One thing to be on the lookout for is what Kristin Marie Bivens calls microwithdrawals of consent. Bivens defines a microwithdrawal of consent as “the implied or partial halt of a person’s willingness to participate in one or more aspects of the research process and the researcher’s awareness of the withdrawal” (138-139). Microwithdrawals can often be subtle, such as a participant’s sudden lack of engagement. As researchers, we must honor our participants’ decisions to renegotiate their consent.
Beneficence: As we proceed, we need to design our study in a way that minimizes risk and protects our participants. We must also show our study to be beneficial, whether that be through immediate benefit to the students, potential for future benefit to the college, or simply the benefit of filling gaps of knowledge in our field. As Leah put it, the risks of a study must correlate with the benefits—high-risk studies need to exhibit greater benefits whereas low-risk studies, such as ours, can get by with fewer benefits. As researchers, we have a responsibility for making the risks and benefits clear to our participants. In this week’s reading, Laura Maria Pigozzi warned of the danger of therapeutic misconception, which occurs when a participant overestimates the benefits and misinterprets the degree to which the study will meet their individual needs. To combat this, we will need to be clear about the intent of our study.
Justice: When recruiting participants, individuals must receive fair treatment. We should not base recruitment only on factors of convenience; we must take care to allow fair access. We need to be aware of the multiple roles we hold as researchers, teachers, and students and recognize how these roles play into the power dynamic with our participants. It is also important for us not to impose unnecessary labels on participants and to avoid classifications that are irrelevant to the study. While our reading from Kelly E. Happe discussed this idea in regard to racial identity, I believe we can apply it more broadly to any kind of polarizing categorization. As we move forward in our research, we must ensure the selection and treatment of our participants is equitable.
While the goal of the IRB is to help us, as researchers, think through some of the ethical considerations of our study, our class agreed that it is also important to go beyond the minimum requirements. As Dawn S. Opel states, “IRB approval does not mean that a researcher has always acted ethically” (183). As we proceed, we must continually evaluate our research process to identify relevant ethical issues that might otherwise be overlooked. As one student put it, we must be ready to make ethical decisions “in the moment.”
Narrative. People who participate in research projects want their words and interactions to be seen as meaningful narratives that represent their experiences in the world. How can we create interviews that allow for authentic conversation, and through that conversation, mutual meaning-making? One classmate suggested focusing on less formal structure in our interview practices. We all agreed that we wanted to create interview environments that allowed for participants to genuinely share.
Everyday Literacies. We decided to include in our research the everyday literacies of UWM students. Haas, Takayoshi, and Carr (Ch. 4) argue for the importance of this in our readings for this week. They write that “understanding everyday literacy practices can, in turn, suggest ways that academic practices and writing instruction could be modified in order to better teach students the composition and communicative skills needed in an increasingly digital world” (p.53). Sheridan (Ch. 6) echoes this when she writes that “writing mediates the lives of everyday people” (p.75).
Ethics. McKnee and Porter (Ch. 19) give a heuristic for staying ethical in internet research by reflexively reviewing the rhetorical situation of the research, especially where the participants are considered. This should include the participants’ perspectives, expectations, and assumptions.
We discussed how this ethical guide translates to our own research. There is no one clear process (online or offline), but we can strive to have clear guidelines to maintain our ethical integrity, which is one of our group goals.
One ethical question that came up was if we could include ourselves as participants. There were hesitations about how objective we could be in analyzing ourselves. Triangulating data gathering and analysis is one way to complicate our findings and gain a fuller perspective of the people we will be trying to represent, especially if some of us will also be participants.
I think we all felt relieved to narrow down our research questions:
1. What experiences and literacies do UWM students utilize for communicating across contexts?
2. How might mapping the landscape of students’ linguistic, rhetorical, and composing practices inform and shape community engagement at UWM?
3. How do UWM students rhetorically navigate academic and nonacademic spaces?
Check in next week for new questions, considerations, and complexities as we learn what it means to do collaborative research and to engage with the community here at UWM!